AISLE SAY New York, Toronto, Stratford

MUSICALS CROSSING BORDERS

ONCE
(The New Leads)
Book by Enda Walsh
Music and Lyrics by
Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Based on the motion picture
written and directed by John Carney
Starring Paul Alexander Nolan
and Jessie Fisher
Directed by John Tiffany
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, NYC
Official Website

MAN OF LA MANCHA
Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Robert McQueen
Starring Tom Rooney, Robin Hutton
and Steve Ross
in repertory at the Avon Theatre
Stratford Festival, Ontario

CRAZY FOR YOU
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed and Choreographed
by Donna Feore
Starring Josh Franklin,
Natalie Daradich and
Tom Rooney
in repertory at the Festival Theatre
Stratford Festival, Ontario


ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
by Lewis Carroll
Adapted by James Reaney
Original Music by Jonathan Monro
Directed by Jillian Kelley
Starring Trish Lindström
in repertory at the Avon Theatre
Stratford Festival, Ontario

COMPANY
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Directed by Gary Griffin
Starring Dan Chameroy,
Louise Pitre and Brent Carver
A Production of Theatre 20
Toronto (closed)

Reviewed by David Spencer

As it seems I rarely have to inform anyone anymore, which is kind of a happy thing, my musical, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, based on the acclaimed and controversial novel by Mordecai Richler  (book-lyrics: me, music: Alan Menken, direction: Austin Pendleton), is going into rehearsals next May for a June opening at the Segal Centre—in Montreal, where the story takes place…and that has pulled me away from critic-ing in a big way this Summer, because it involved a lot of travel for intense and exhaustive but delightful and revelatory casting sessions in both Montreal and Toronto. (By U.S. standards, that’s early, but Up There you have to get a jump on the offers that go out from the Stratford and Shaw Festivals.)

                  I will be getting back to more regular reviewing as the 2014-2015 season kicks in, in earnest, but here’s a roundup of what I have seen for review recently…some of it, naturally I suppose, north of the border.

                  And in brief.

 

I revisited Once, reclaiming my old habit of revisiting long-run musicals when I can, just to see how it’s holding up. For my detailed view of the show, my (quite positive) opinion hasn’t altered since I saw the show upon its opening, and you can get that here.

                  As to its current state: it’s fantastically well-maintained by director John Tiffany and, one assumes, production stage manager Bess Marie Glorioso. This is quite remarkable for two reasons: the first, that most of the supporting cast have remained with the show, and they show not the slightest sign of fatigue or of phoning it in. (Bear in mind, too, this is a show for which there is no pit or separate orchestra; it toils in the vineyards of contemporary Irish folk music tropes, and all the actors double as instrumentalists. So the level of concentration can arguably be said to be double.)

                  Reason #2 is that the show’s fourth set of romantic leads—Paul Alexander Nolan as the initially directionless songsmith identified only as “Guy”, and Jessie Fisher as the Czuch immigrant “Girl” who provides the needed purpose for him—are every bit as engaging as the two who opened the show (Steve Kazee and Cristin Milloti). While it doesn’t seem that difficult a task to find a qualified “Guy”—there is a fair selection of soulful, talented, good-looking, sufficiently charismatic young actors in the NYC talent pool, which is not to minimize Mr. Nolan’s fine performance in the slightest—this is particularly important with the role of “Girl” because Cristin Milloti, who created the role, is one of those distinctive aberrations of nature who falls into stardom simply because she has no equivalent…and the alchemic combination of actress and role seemed as if it might be iconic, to the detriment of all who might follow. But happily, Ms. Fisher has no trouble asserting her own particular brand of quirkiness, and has the audience thoroughly charmed in, oh, the conservative estimate might be…90 seconds.

                  As fresh and nuanced now as when it opened, Once earns its long run keep, the attention of any who have thus far missed it, and will mightily please any who choose to return.

 

The way I feel about Man of La Mancha in the hands of any professional production outfit is that, as the saying goes, it’s theirs to screw up. By which I mean of course, it’s such a rock solid piece of material, their job is simply (or not so simply) not to screw it up. Happily, at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, director Robert McQueen has delivered a very solid rendering. Not revelatory, not the La Mancha you must see; but a La Mancha to see if you’re of a mind to get re-acquainted, or, more importantly, if you’ve never seen it.

                  Though the production isn’t slave to the original (which was the mandated, contractual way it had to be staged for decades), it doesn’t try for anything terribly conceptual that would stray too far from the template. A few original touches here and there—rather than dancing horse-heads for the steeds of Sancho and Quixote, shadow puppetry—mostly it hews, in its way, to the template, and, truly, that’s what you want it to do.

                  One, though, might find a mild controversy in the casting of Cervantes/Quixote in Canadian mainstay Tom Rooney. He’s a fine actor, but in both dialogue and song, his diction and line readings—while being wholly appropriate in an emotional and thematic sense—remain steadfastly colloquial. I don’t mean to say he gets all “method” and breaks with an energy needed to put forth the lead in a musical…but he has chosen not to embrace the grandiosity of the old man’s delusion and perform it with the outsize, classical sweep usually associated with the role. As the lead-in to “I, Don Quixote” suggests, he very much “impersonates a man.” This somewhat more naturalistic Quixote takes a few minutes with which to become attuned (especially if you know the show); but once you’re on his wavelength, things proceed smoothly, the show hitting all of its signature points effectively. The generally fine cast also features Robin Hutton as a tempestuous Aldonza and Steve Ross as an avuncular Sancho. Each in her and his own way delivers an interpretation synchronous with Rooney’s approach (as, of course, they’d have to)and both audience and show are well-served. For a Festival revival, one can’t ask for more.

 

Speaking of “who could ask for anything more,” the Stratford revival of Crazy for You, the posthumously “new” Gershwin musical with a book by Ken Ludwig fashioned around George and Ira’s catalog, is likewise expertly delivered by director-choreographer Donna Feore. A silly confection, set in the ‘30s, it’s about an aspiring Broadway hoofer, in civilian life a banker, who gets sent to foreclose the Western town of Deadlock, Nevada, but there finds the girl of his dreams and realizes that the solution to all their ills is…of course…to put on a show. There’s absolutely nothing to it, which doesn’t mean it isn’t exceptionally hard to do. Whereas Man of La Mancha is pretty much a gimme, Crazy for You demands the deftest broad-strokes musical theatre characterization, the Swiss-watchiest comic timing and dance routining that is exhaustive and inventive, number upon number. This Ms. Feore delivers handily.

                  If the production suffers at all, it is only by comparison, for those who may remember Mike Ockrent’s original Broadway production because of the insanely inspired choreography of Susan Stroman, which wasn’t just about steps, but about resourceful use of props to create fantastic and ever more cumulatively stunning pictures. Ms. Feore’s choreography is “merely” inventive within the bounds of appropriate choreography for the energy and the music.

                  But this is a case of most of the audience not knowing what they’re missing, so just having a great time with what they have. As well they may. The romantic leads are acted-sung-danced charmingly by Josh Franklin and Natalie Daradich; and in character roles are the aforementioned lead players from Man of La Mancha, delivering likewise expert and amusing turns and providing a gratifyingly entertaining study in extreme contrast: Tom Rooney as a Broadway producer with a pronounced Yiddish accent; Robin Hutton as the NY sophisticate fiancé, who really “isn’t right” for our hero; and Steve Ross as the principal in a trio of comic cowboys who sing in three-part harmony and dominate the “low comedy” portion of the evening.

                  All-in-all, it’s quite stylish—and has the distinction of being the first Stratford musical production to have its own cast album, available at the theatre, via CD Baby and Amazon (among, I assume, others) in physical media and digital download.

 

Not really a musical, but a play with music that dwells in the realm of panto, that peculiar hybrid of music hall and classic tales—peculiar to the UK, familiar to Canada, not at all embraced in the US (though the import Matilda borrows its tropes)—there’s also, at Stratford, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass by the late James Reaney, which debuted at the Festival in 1994 and is making its third appearance currently.

                  I didn’t cotton to it much. Despite many inventive and imaginative costumes and SFX (that themselves draw upon the audience’s magination), the blocking of director Jillian Kelley seemed a bit chaotic to me (though I generally admired the periodic choreography of Dayna Tekatch), and the pacing laggardly. Then again, endemic to the story is that the heroine, despite her attitude and commentary, is only a reactive cipher with no over-arching goal, upon whom is visited a random series of fantastic encounters—and the lack of a true dramatic center naturally causes sprawl; to my way of thinking, it would naturally affect the staging.

                  And yet, I would seem to have been in a tiny minority. Alice is Stratford’s family offering, there were many parents and small children attending the matinee I saw, and the show held their attention and concentration. I cannot say if this was due to the panto cultural divide, the visuals and a sense of expectation that they encouraged, or something else as yet unfathomable to me, but having toiled in the vineyards of children’s theatre for a time, I can say unequivocally, holding the kids’ attention is the endgame. I’m not sure it would hold an audience of young kids without parents in tow—especially at an astonishing running time (for a kids’ show) of 2 hours-plus, not including the 20 minute ‘mish—but the shared family experience had to be objectively marked as a success.

                  Some of Canada’s top talent are in the cast—including Trish Lindström as a slightly bizarre and somewhat subversive Alice (i.e. not explicitly but indefinably sexy, for the adult mind paying attention, nothing the kids would notice; the intent [so I’m told] to evoke the hardly-paternal fascination Lewis Carroll held for the real Alice who was the model for his character, which it unsettlingly may) and Cynthia Dale in a cameo as the Red Queen. A truly beautiful, neo-classic incidental score has been provided by Jonathan Monro.

 

Finally, quick acknowledgement must go to the early Summer Toronto production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, delivered by Theatre 20 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, which I was graciously allowed to see near the end of its run (and with nothing much in the way of advance notice for my request). It was apparently a beleaguered production, its American director Gary Griffin having had his attentions divided, with another production in simultaneous development, and unexpectedly rendered too ill to be on point for Company as much as planned. This reportedly made the earlier performances—some of which were of course reviewed—unfocused and stylistically uneven. But the cast was a veritable Toronto A-Team, with Dan Chameroy as Robert, Mama Mia’s Louise Pitre as Joanne and Parade/Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Brent Carver as Harry—to name but a few—and over the course of the run, as can happen with strong enough material, they found their center and “directed themselves” into a nice, tight, memorable little revival that deserved a few extensions beyond the one that I believe advance sales earned it. As indicated, I attended strictly on impulse…but it was one of the best rewarded snap decisions I’ve ever made.

 

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